|REVIEW: Kelley Joe Phelps
In troubling times, we turn to the troubadours. As much as any
clergy, counselor or even bartender, it's the itinerant musician, the folk singer,
who diligently seeks some unerring semblance of truth, and in whom we seek some
So it was at the Aladdin Theater Saturday night for a night of such truth-seeking,
lead by the gentle, salve-like ministering of Portland favorite son, Kelly Joe
Phelps. An enthusiastic sold-out house of some 620 set aside CNN to listen
to Phelps, KINK favorite Willy Porter and Stephen Fearing.
Phelps is a wonder. A Rose City singer and songwriter who came up through the
coffee-house ranks at digs like Caffé Lena and the Cup and Saucer Cafe>, he has
earned international acclaim for his singular blues-folk guitar style and warm-honey
Through six recordings, including the brand new "Slingshot Professionals"
> on the Rykodisc label, he's been honing a distinct style that is at
once refreshingly new yet ancient and eternal. He exudes a decidedly regional
aesthetic, with a flannel shirt, jeans and evocative Northwest images, yet the
core of his music is some thread of sorrow and pain that courses through the
Phelps this night was accompanied by fiddler Jesse Zubot and lap steel
player Steve Dawson and featured material from the new CD, as well as his
previous recordings. Both players are featured heavily on the new album.
Phelps abandoned his signature slide-guitar style of laying the instrument on
his lap, in favor of a journeyman finger-picking style of deep emotion, vulnerability
In his typical soulful vocal mumblings, Phelps opened the show in deft interplay
with Zubot and Dawson, yet was clearly the core, the heartbeat, of the trio.
"Gold Tooth," from "Sky Like a Broken Clock," set the tone for his set, plunging
the players and listeners immediately into a very deep place. Phelps has never
been one to stand still. He's grown with every recording, as if he's receiving
knowledge from on high, and letting us in on the process.
Willie Porter, a Northwest favorite, is an agile vocalist and percussive
picker. He can set a monstrous groove with a guitar in his hands, yet soar with
a rich yet plaintive vocal over the top to dramatic effect, as he demonstrated
on his opening cut, "Breathe" from his self-titled recording.
Whereas Phelps has a mystical, almost shamanistic quality about him,
is more upbeat, energetic, and keenly observational of the joys found in
even the mundane. His guitar playing rambles and roams, as if he's picking
through and remembering the thousands of miles he's traveled.
Canadian Stephen Fearing opened the show with wit, throaty vocals that
wrapped around thoughtful poetry, and solid guitar chops. He dropped with ease
lines like "Arc-weld of the rising sun," and "Drawn to you/Like a tongue to a
Folk music is, to be honest, an exercise in a sort of collective psychoanalysis,
a zeitgeist using nice guitars, capos, open tunings and the rich and delicious
patter that comes with having to retune between each song. We love to hear stories,
especially in dark times, to know we're all right. These three were the balm.